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His Private Pleasure

By:Donna Kauffman


THE MOMENT SHE SPIED that nicely formed male derriere sticking out of the tree, Liza Sanguinetti realized that giving up her career was going to be a whole lot easier than giving up men.

She slowed her shiny blue roadster convertible to a crawl. Which was only slightly slower than the speed limit posted next to the sign welcoming her to Canyon Springs, New Mexico. Population… “A hell of lot less than L.A.,” she murmured. But definitely bigger than some of the one-horse towns she’d driven through. Canyon Springs looked like a festive place, with rows of quaint storefronts lining the main thoroughfare and banners streaming from the light poles, announcing some upcoming celebration.

The town was nestled in the foothills of the rugged Black Range Mountains, which, according to the brochure she’d picked up at breakfast in Santa Fe, were the source of the natural springs that fed down into the deep canyons and rincóns. Whatever the hell a rincón was.

All she knew was that she’d been drawn toward the dark shadowy mountains as if some guiding hand was pointing the way. The vistas here were downright awe-inspiring and pulled at something deep inside her. Which struck her as odd, considering she was a born and bred city girl. Her idea of a wild country weekend meant going horseback riding in a Palm Springs resort spa.

All she wanted at the moment was a bite to eat and the chance to wander around the antique stores she’d seen advertised on her meandering drive. Sounded like the perfect way to spend the afternoon. She was hoping the perfect housewarming present for Natalie and Jake would sit up and grab her attention. She smiled, picturing Natalie’s face when she told her she’d been antiquing in the mountains of New Mexico. Not exactly on the list of Liza’s normal haunts. But then, that was the point of this trip. Expanding personal horizons.

At the moment, however, the only thing grabbing her attention was the man perched in the towering corner oak.

“I could think of another way to spend a perfectly nice afternoon in Canyon Springs,” she murmured appreciatively, staring openly at the fine masculine scenery as she tooled beneath the outstretched branches of the tree. An amazingly loud screech erupted a second later, causing her to swerve around the corner and pull to the side of the road. One hand clutching her racing heart, she climbed out of the low-slung car and shaded her eyes with her free hand. Just past the beautiful specimen of man was an even more exotic specimen of bird perched just out of his reach.

“Come on, Mango. Step up,” the man beckoned, reaching his hand alarmingly close to that intimidating black beak.

The enormous bird was mostly white, with a vibrant orange plume that erupted all about its head as it spread its huge wings and shrieked once again. Liza covered her ears at the skull-splitting sound and wondered how the man managed to keep his perch a mere foot away without so much as flinching.

“Mango is a pretty bird,” he cajoled, though now Liza could see the muscles flexing along his jaw and neck. Perhaps the bird sensed the tension as well, since it lunged for the fingers being offered, as if they were a snack to be gobbled down rather than a lift to safety.

“Pretty, pretty Mango,” he said, repeating the words over and over in a smooth, singsongy voice. A nice deep singsongy voice, Liza found herself thinking. What sort of things could that voice cajole her into?

“Come on, pretty boy, pretty bird.”

Another piercing shriek split the air, making her jump.

“Pretty loud bird,” Liza muttered, testing one ear, then the other. The bird flapped and ducked, bobbed and pranced in quite an ornate show of birdy fervor, but didn’t move one speck closer to the outstretched hand of its brave savior.

“I don’t think he’s interested,” Liza called up.

The man glanced down then, and Liza thought, But I sure am! Even frowning, he was quite gorgeous. Not Hollywood glamorous, but real world rugged. Mmm. Her afternoon was getting better by the second. No, down girl, down. It had been eight weeks since she’d gone cold turkey on men and she still got the shakes when confronted with a prime specimen. Surely that was natural. On the bright side, he’d be a real litmus test of her testosterone sobriety.

And test her he would. She couldn’t make out the color of his eyes, but she could definitely make out just about everything else of importance. The close cropped blond hair, straight nose, sharp cheekbones and square jaw topped equally squared shoulders and a chest that did justice to the brown-and-tan uniform he wore. The shiny star on one pocket explained why he was up in the tree.

She’d never harbored uniform fantasies before, but that fact was in rapid transition. Just because she couldn’t play with him didn’t mean she couldn’t imagine what kind of playmate he’d have made. “Doesn’t the fire department usually handle this sort of thing?” she offered oh-so-helpfully. Something about that scowl provoked her. She was an unconventional flirt, but this wasn’t actually flirting. It couldn’t be flirting as long as he kept scowling, right? “I passed a station on the way into town,” she continued. She remembered because the guys had been out washing the trucks. Suds and muscular men with long hoses, always a good combination.

She sighed and wondered if there was a resort spa out here with a twelve-step plan to help her embrace celibacy. Hi, I’m Liza Sanguinetti and I enjoy hot sex. Probably the first step was truly grasping there was a problem with that. But she was working on it. At her own pace.

“If you’d like, I can drive over and ask them to send some help?” she offered. Who knew, maybe there were trucks still being washed. Another sobriety test in case she failed this one.

“I can handle things, ma’am,” he said evenly, clearly not keen on his rescue mission drawing an audience. Even an audience of one.

Liza wasn’t put off. She was still hung up on that “ma’am.” All husky and direct, in that I-can-take-care-of-anything tone they must teach them at the law enforcement academy. She shivered, just a tiny bit. Apparently she’d repressed more uniform fantasies than she’d thought. “I can see that,” she responded, smiling, not going anywhere. “Totally under control. I’m sure the citizens of Canyon Springs sleep better knowing that you’re on the job. Protecting them from killer birds.”

He merely stared at her. “Thanks for stopping. Please be careful when you pull back into traffic.”

She glanced over her shoulder. He must be kidding. Traffic? Sure, the town had a steady little bustle of cars and trucks streaming up and down the main road, but traffic? Obviously he’d never seen Long Beach Freeway at five-thirty on a Friday.

“I think I can handle it, Officer,” she said with great seriousness.

“I’m sure you can.”

She smiled then. So, there was a real man lurking behind the badge. And that oh-so-official tone. She wondered what it would take to put a shudder in that “ma’am” of his. No, bad Liza, bad. No playing with small-town sheriffs.

But wasn’t she on this personal odyssey for the express purpose of discovering new things, new ways of life? In addition to an appreciation for mountain scenery, she’d discovered she had appreciation for uniforms. That was totally new. Liza had spent the past eight of her twenty-nine years hopscotching around the globe, making sure her celebrity clients were all well pampered and cared for, and she’d never once lusted after a man in blue. Or brown and tan, as the case may be. So this could be seen as a positive step.

Maybe this was a test of another kind. “And maybe you’re trying way too hard to rationalize an afternoon quickie,” she murmured. But the longer she looked up in that tree, the harder it was remembering why celibacy had been an absolute rule on this journey of hers. Yes, she’d watched her oldest and dearest pal, Natalie, fall headlong into love earlier this year, and yes, her own heart had taken a tiny ding when she’d stupidly allowed one of her playmates to become more than a playmate. In her mind, anyway. And okay, so it had been more than a tiny ding.

More like a wake-up thwack in the head. And heart. But those weren’t the only reasons Liza had taken stock and decided that success didn’t always equal happiness. She supposed she’d been heading toward that epiphany for some time. Natalie’s wedding and Conrad’s infidelity had simply been an impetus to examine why it was that the more successful Liza got, the less fulfilled she felt.

Sure, she’d kicked ass as the hottest public relations consultant on the West Coast, and just as certainly, she’d enjoyed the wealth and the wide variety of perks it brought her way. Hard work and hard play had made Liza a very happy girl. For a time. But somewhere along the way she realized that while she enjoyed the limelight she garnered for her clients, at the end of the day, when she went home to her glossy, Century City penthouse condo, she went alone. She’d substituted clients for real friends, and flings with the man of the moment for real intimacy.

She could put together an A-list party at the drop of a hat. But if she wanted someone to hang out with? Talk to? Just kick back and be Liza with? Other than Natalie, who lived three thousand miles away—or had before meeting the man of her dreams—she had exactly no one. In fact, outside of her work persona, she wasn’t even sure who the real Liza was. Hence her personal odyssey…and hence swearing off men until she figured out how to have fun without one.